Shards of brilliance
AS Byatt: her story is a masterful turn amid impressive company. photograph: ulf andersen/getty
FICTIONBest European Fiction 2013, Edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press, 502pp, £11.99
In his introduction to Best European Fiction 2013, Aleksandar Hemon, who has edited the anthology each year since its inception, in 2010, describes himself as a kind of literary evangelist, who spends his time trying to convince people to read difficult and/or translated works of literature. Now he says he has given up the sermonising, and writes apologetically that this collection is “proudly difficult and imperfectly translated”. Essentially, Hemon says, it’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be worth it.
For the first quarter of the book or so, it really isn’t easy, and it is not until Kirill Kobrin’s Last Summer in Marienbad, a wonderful slice of historical drama with Franz Kafka at its core – the man rather than his writing style – that this collection starts to hit its stride.
Those looking for a guide to the grand themes in current European literature will be disappointed, as it’s hard to cut any clear paths through the chaos of such a lively literary continent. The book is loosely corralled under headings, such as space, women, body and Americans, but this is little more than an optimistic attempt at drawing a few boundaries. The 35 stories and their subject matter are too diverse in their heritage and execution to allow any effective categorisation.
There is the gleeful anarchy of Tania Malyarchuk’s Me and My Sacred Cow; it seems like a documentary treatment of a misremembered fairy tale. Or there is the cold-water shock of the last line in Gundega Repse’s How Important Is It to Be Ernest?, a terrific piece from Latvia.
As with most short-story collections, not all are gems but most have a shard of brilliance. Vitalie Ciobanu’s story of everyday oppression in a Soviet state is a taut piece of writing, but it is a long passage about a prison from which no sound emanates that strikes a chilling chord.
Daniel Batliner’s contribution is not the best in the collection, but his description of a laughing boy lingers long. “It is not the giggling of ridicule,” he writes, “but the innocent giggling of a child pleased by a prank that had been successful beyond his expectations.”
In Dulce Maria Cardoso’s Angels on the Inside, a country walk home shifts into a moment of searing drama, with everyday details transformed into curios of geometry and science by its young narrator. There’s a similar sense of lost, dark wonder in Ieva Toleikyte’s The Eye of the Maples, a childhood story that resists explanation and leaves its thumbprints on the protaganist’s life and the reader’s mind.